Inside the suicide house


Ludwig Minelli is explaining the best techniques for an efficient suicide when the doorbell goes and he pauses to answer via an intercom. It is already dark outside his cluttered, dimly lit conservatory, and heavy rain is beating at the glass roof. “Would you excuse me for a moment?” he says, frowning at the interruption. “A taxi driver tells me that Greek persons are coming and they want to speak with me.”

Ten minutes later he reemerges, shaking out his black anorak which is glistening with rain. “It’s absurd,” he says, with an embarrassed laugh. “A Greek lady and her uncle, knowing not a single word of German and no English have come to Zurich.” Standing on his doorstep in the pouring rain, the Greek woman has somehow made it clear that she would like him to help her to die.

Such peculiar intrusions happen every month or so because Minelli, 76, is now famous around the world as the founder of Dignitas, the not-for-profit assisted suicide organisation that has helped 1,032 people to die since 1998.

He tells anecdotes, with black humour, of other unexpected visitors who arrive, hoping to die. A few months ago, as he was driving home, he saw a German taxi parked at the side of the road.  “I stopped because I knew there could only be one person they were looking for,” he says. Inside there was a woman in her 90s who had taken a 300km taxi ride from Munich and who told him: “I am now here.”

Another time there was a young man from Germany, only 20 but profoundly depressed, who rang him and said: “ I want to die, immediately.” “I do not like these incidents,” Minelli says. “It is not very agreeable either for me or for the people looking for help.” He has sent the Greek woman away, telling her he cannot help her since she has made no appointment, but he is dismayed at the suffering that has driven her to travel from Athens to seek out his home in a suburban village outside Zurich, and mutters: “Deplorable.”

There are established procedures that must be followed in order to receive Minelli’s assistance in securing a swift death with a 15mg dose of a lethal drug. Merely turning up on his doorstep is not the correct way.

First, you need to become a member of Dignitas; anyone can join if they pay an annual fee of 80 Swiss francs (£47). When you are ready to die, you need to send in copies of your medical records, a letter explaining why things have become intolerable and £1,860. These files are dispatched to one of Dignitas’ affiliated doctors, who considers on the basis of the medical history whether or not he would be ready to write a prescription for the fatal dose. If he agrees in principle, then a “green light” is given to the member, and they can contact staff at the Dignitas headquarters, who will schedule a date and offer advice on hotels.

Once they arrive in Zurich, the individual must pay £620 for two appointments with the doctor (to check their records and prescribe the drugs)and a further £1,860 to pay for two Dignitas staff members to organise and witness the death. Those who cannot afford the fees may pay less.

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